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Spitting in America - Spittoons of Yesterday, a Photo Gallery

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Sherri is an online writer with years of experience writing about food and history.

Today, the terms spittoon and cuspidor are largely interchangeable, spittoon being the more usual. In this 1893 Handlan Company catalog, cuspidor referred to the model having a bowl-shaped base, a pinched neck, and a funnel-shaped opening.

Today, the terms spittoon and cuspidor are largely interchangeable, spittoon being the more usual. In this 1893 Handlan Company catalog, cuspidor referred to the model having a bowl-shaped base, a pinched neck, and a funnel-shaped opening.

Spittoons, Common Household and Public Objects: Photos From the Golden Age of Spitting in America

Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, spittoons were as common in American households as pots and pans and as common in American public places as trash cans. Spitting in America was an accepted activity, and the production and maintenance of spittoons were businesses in themselves. Spittoons embodied every sort of design and material, from the perfunctory to the bizarre, from the durable to the fragile. But what all spittoons had in common was utility: spittoons proliferated for the purpose of catching spit.

We are fortunate that a large body of spittoon photos from those early years is available to us on the Internet. Not only do these photos document the forms and materials of spittoons, they also document the everyday life that went on in the golden age of spitting in America.

As it is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, these historical photos of spitting in America tell stories that you can experience in ways that words alone could never convey.

Banks, barber shops, business offices, courtrooms, and saloons provided spittoons for spitting in America. Imagine walking into your local bank today, or accountant’s office for that matter, and seeing a spittoon. Even more engaging for the imagination, think about watching someone spit into it. Not so long ago, this object for collecting spit would have been a common sight, and you would have thought nothing of it.

Spitting in the Bank

This 1910 view of the interior of the City National Bank, Kearney, Nebraska shows gleaming wood and marble walls, a spotless tile floor, and three brass spittoons polished to a mirror shine. Notice that two of the spittoons flank the entrance to a small office; perhaps one was used upon entering and the other upon exiting. Also notice that the spittoons stand against the walls. One has to wonder how much spittle landed on the walls instead of in the spittoons.

Spittoons in the bank.

Spittoons in the bank.

Spitting in the Barber Shop

In 1920, eight barbers posed for this formal photo in Draper’s Barber Shop, Martinsville, Virginia. White shirts, neatly knotted short ties, and meticulous grooming present these barbers as true professionals. Three spittoons on the checkerboard floor visually complement the crisp white shirts and lead the eye to the back of the shop where a ninth man stands against the wall, just behind what appears to be a watercooler. Were the shop’s spittoons always placed in the middle of the floor, where they could be tripped over?

Spittoons in the barber shop.

Spittoons in the barber shop.

Spitting in the Office

Young men, with shirt sleeves loosened and rolled, posed in a South Pacific Railroad Lines office in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1917. Notice the high ceilings, ceiling fan, and open window, necessities for working in an office in the Louisiana heat. One spittoon is clearly visible in the foreground; most likely there are more. If the young man holding papers stands up too quickly, will his right foot wind up in the spittoon?

Spittoons in the office.

Spittoons in the office.

Spitting in the Courtroom

Three quite serious-looking gentlemen sit in chairs, holding their hats, in a Chicago, Illinois courtroom in the 1910s. The spittoon seems awkwardly placed in this small floor area, inviting an accident should the people who are standing and facing away from the camera take a step backward without looking. But then, if you must injure yourself tripping over a spittoon, perhaps the best place to be for a quick claim resolution is in the courtroom.

Spittoons in the courtroom.

Spittoons in the courtroom.

Spitting in the Saloon

This elaborately carved and appointed bar and back mirror dominated the saloon of the Columbian Hotel built in 1879 in Trinidad, Colorado. Notice the absence of bar stools. Drinking in the 1880s must have been a serious, stand-up business. Two spittoons are safely tucked beneath the bar’s brass footrest. Hanging from the bar are two towels. Although I shudder at the idea of what lurked inside a spittoon, I’m absolutely terrified of what those towels might have been used for.

Spittoons in the saloon.

Spittoons in the saloon.

The Rich and Famous Spat in Spittoons, Too

Lest we think that this preoccupation with spitting belonged only to the unnamed masses, consider these photos of famous people and the spittoons in their lives.

Famous people spit, too. Chicago Mayor June Smith, 1917.

Famous people spit, too. Chicago Mayor June Smith, 1917.

Famous people spit, too. Thomas Alva Edison, 1914.

Famous people spit, too. Thomas Alva Edison, 1914.

Famous people spit, too. Then Governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1930.

Famous people spit, too. Then Governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1930.

Who Cleaned the Spittoons?

This photo from the 1930s shows working men who made their living by cleaning out spittoons that were used by men of a different social order--those men of prestige who conducted the business of our country. Poet Langston Hughes captured the thoughts, feelings, harsh reality, and spirituality of those who tended spittoons in his poem “Brass Spittoons”:

Clean the spittoons, boy…
Two dollars a day…
Buy shoes for the baby…
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord… (1, 15, 21, 32)

To this day, there are spittoons in the Capitol building of the US and the court of the US supreme justices. These spittoons are not used, but they are maintained as symbols of our American way of life.

Cleaning spittoons.

Cleaning spittoons.

Death in Denver, 1920

As spitting and spittoons spoke of everyday life, so too did they speak of death. No one knows this woman’s demise. Perhaps her death was accidental, perhaps she was a victim of murder, or perhaps she died of the tuberculosis that was carried in spittle. There is no record to tell how or why she died. One can only speculate.

The death room appears to be an office with its large roll-top desk and phone suspended on a retractable arm. The dark and light contrasts are reminiscent of a Jan Vermeer painting, and I do wonder if this photo were retouched in the darkroom to create these dramatic contrasts.

From this evocative photo we can see that a real and present aspect of her life was a spittoon. Positioned next to a radiator, near her head, the spittoon was as common an object in her life as a cooking pot or pan, and kept her company in death as well.

Spittoon in death.

Spittoon in death.

Why So Much Spitting in America in Those Years?

Until the widespread use of cigarettes during and after World War I, the most common nicotine products were chewing tobacco and cigars. Since a tobacco chewer does not ingest the tobacco nor most of the saliva chewing produces, spitting is necessary. Although spitting is not necessary for a cigar smoker, cigar aficionados took advantage of the widespread presence of spittoons as well, demonstrating that “Why do guys spit?” is a question that belongs not only to today.

Spitting in America Today

Today, spitting in America is considered by most to be an unnecessary and repulsive act, to the point where anti-spitting laws are in place nearly everywhere in the nation. That these anti-spitting laws are largely unenforced is another matter.

All photos courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sources and Further Reading

Gershon, Livia. (2016). “A Brief History of Tobacco in America.” JSTOR Daily, https://daily.jstor.org/a-brief-history-of-tobacco-in-america/.

Jones, Chad. (n.d.). “Spittoon History.” Northerner, https://www.northerner.com/us/the-northerner/spittoon-history.

The Rise and Fall of Spittoons in the United States.” (2017). WorldHistory.us, https://worldhistory.us/american-history/the-rise-and-fall-of-spittoons-in-the-united-states.php.

Spittoon.” (n.d.). U.S. House of Representatives – History, Art & Archives, https://history.house.gov/Collection/Listing/2015/2015-101-002/.

Spittoon, 1835-1840.” (n.d.). The Henry Ford, https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-collections/artifact/185822.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Chris Johnson on November 26, 2014:

Wow this is a really great article. How where you able to find all those awesome pictures? Spittoons do actually go really far back in the American History. You can check out some of the timeline on this page https://www.flasr.com/spittoon/ . Thanks for putting together this great article. By Chris Johnson with https://www.flasr.com/

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on January 09, 2012:

Thanks, Susannah, for continuing your thoughts here. I think you're offering a perspective that's valuable.

Susannah on January 09, 2012:

I may have not been so accommodating towards the woman had my collars not been turned up high! I am trying to make a point here, albeit perhaps here in London perceptions are apparently different. This is kind of amusing as I've always been considerate where and when I spit, perhaps more so after taking part in this blog!When I leave my office for a break, I smoke a cigarette and more often than not, spit on the pavement. I see other ladies doing the same daily, professional ladies, busy Mums. The vast majority of us would never consider we may be anti society, ignorant or merit a fine by a passing police officer! Hardly fair as I've seen females in the police here spit on the pavement also! I note the objectors on this thread and also do not support other ladies I have witnessed spit in pubs, restaurants and clubs. But, in the open air, what harm can there be, given the fact that the majority of us are normal, decent living people...and yes female!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on January 01, 2012:

Hi Susannah,

Your story about the woman spitting into the air in a public place blew me away. What's even more astounding is that she offered you an apology? So, she knew exactly what she was doing, and dollars to donuts her air-borne spittle had landed on someone else in the past. Amazing.

I don't think anything will ever take away the repugnance that so many people experience when they see public spitting. But, as you say, a little consideration goes a long way...I can't help but think about how people who smoke could make it better for all who smoke if they were more considerate and didn't drop their spent butts on sidewalks and in other public places.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

Susannah on December 29, 2011:

Hi, I posted on your other stream in this subject. My particular point is the fact that much of the negative opinion around spitting revolves around health issues in less privileged societies. In particular, there is bias against women spitting in public. I may do this often but am always considerate around people around me. I felt annoyed during Christmas shopping when a lady spat into the air a few yards from where I walked for a cab and her spit landed on the collar of my leather trenchcoat! Fortunately for me, I had my collars turned up which protected my face and hair from the aftermath! An apology and a kleenex tissue rendered the situation. However, I would never spit in the air at such a time or in a crowded shopping area and neither would friends of mine who also spit for various reasons. A little consideration goes a long way and would reduce all the "haters" who have posted to this thread! Susannah (London,UK)

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on December 21, 2011:

Hi Marilyn,

I don't know anything about tobacco stands, so thanks for this comment...I'll be looking for info. Meanwhile, maybe other readers here will have some advice for you. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Marilyn Stutts on December 21, 2011:

I have a very old tobacco stand that held the spittoon and a place for the pipe. That is why I want to know more about the tobacco stands.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on August 06, 2010:

Tony, an aspect of spitting that intrigues me is how it is viewed by cultures around the world. He